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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Nashua officials consider parking program, wait on safety group’s recommendation

NASHUA – As Nashua officials struggle to approve a pilot program to allow 300 cars to park downtown overnight, more city residents are saying they want the same privilege.

Joy Lutz, of Gloucester, Mass., who rents an apartment building to tenants on Oak Street, said she can’t find renters because even though she has souped up her housing and made it a place she’d “want to live,” people aren’t renting. ...

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NASHUA – As Nashua officials struggle to approve a pilot program to allow 300 cars to park downtown overnight, more city residents are saying they want the same privilege.

Joy Lutz, of Gloucester, Mass., who rents an apartment building to tenants on Oak Street, said she can’t find renters because even though she has souped up her housing and made it a place she’d “want to live,” people aren’t renting.

“It eludes me still because of the parking issue,” she told aldermen in late June.

Lutz was joined by her tenant George King, who rents the space now.

“As a landlord, I find it very difficult to secure desirable tenants that want to stay in the neighborhood when I have one parking spot,” she said. “I knew that when I bought the building. But I didn’t understand how much of a hardship it would be. It is a hardship.”

Nashua is the only major city in the state that doesn’t allow people to park on city streets at night. Nashua doesn’t allow parking anywhere on its streets between midnight and 6 a.m.

The city’s proposed pilot parking program wouldn’t change those restrictions except for a few hundred people living in the downtown and Tree Streets neighborhoods. The plan would add about 300 permitted overnight
parking spaces in the city.

Denying people the ability to park downtown affects their quality of life when they’re forced to pay for parking spots in private lots or to walk several blocks to get to their cars every day, rain, snow or shine, said resident James Vayo, who brought up the idea of the ordinance to Alderman-at-Large Jim Donchess.

The Board of Aldermen forwarded the proposal to the Committee on Infrastructure, but has asked several other parties to weigh in. The Department of Public Works has tasked a “traffic safety group” with reviewing the plans.

Those in favor of the proposal say it would help local residents’ lives by making life more convenient and comfortable, while others have said parking could interfere with emergency responders, pose safety issues and overcrowd the city.

Donchess, the bill’s sponsor, said he already has a few tweaks for the proposal. He has learned from some officials that some of the streets included in the plan are too narrow to allow parking, and he submitted those edits on June 26.

“This issue is one that has a lot of facets to it, and therefore, we want the people involved to take the time to study that situation and give us their thoughts,” Donchess said. “And I’m not surprised by that.

“I believe strongly that the ordinance would have a positive effect on the neighborhood, but I also want to find out what some of the departments think and what changes they would recommend.”

No records, no residents

Some members of the safety group, including city planners and engineers, have remained tight-lipped about how their conversations are going. Members of the police and fire departments were more forthcoming with their opinions.

Either way, the group’s meetings aren’t public, and a record of their discussions isn’t being kept. They have told aldermen they will provide a recommendation by July 24.

One group that’s absent from the panel are city residents whose lives would be affected by the change.

City transportation manager Mark Sousa deferred all comment to Wayne Husband, senior traffic engineer. A call placed to Husband’s office wasn’t returned. Director of Public Works Lisa Fauteux responded on his behalf, saying the group wouldn’t like to comment at this time.

“We really don’t have any opinion yet regarding the overnight pilot program,” she said. “The commissioners are fairly supportive of it. We just want to make sure we’ve reviewed it very carefully.”

Fauteux said the group has had two meetings so far this summer, and it isn’t known if there will be another before the end of July. She noted the group hasn’t reached out to people in the neighborhood to gather their opinions and perspectives.

“It’s not up to the traffic safety group to do that,” she said. “I think some of that has been done. I think the aldermen are doing that.”

Donchess said he has spoken with some people in the neighborhood, and with Vayo, who reached out to some residents, but Board of Alderman President Brian McCarthy said he hadn’t heard of anyone soliciting input from the public.

Public safety

Deputy Fire Chief Michael O’Brien Sr., who doesn’t sit on the group but said he was familiar with the topic, said his stance is the same as the rest of the department’s: Parking overnight wouldn’t interfere with emergency response any differently than it does during the day. Parking overnight would really make no difference, he said.

“When we looked at the issues comparatively during the day, we just don’t know what time we’ll have any of the fires in the structures,” O’Brien said. “We’re on duty and we respond to the needs of the city on a 24/7 basis.”

He added his department is staffed with firefighters trained to be flexible, with skills that include being able to stretch hoses around parked cars and other objects.

“We’re quite tolerant,” he said. “We deal with (parking) in the afternoon and in the downtown area, and we realize our constituents, the people we serve, they all have cars.”

But Police Lt. Brian Marshall, who does sit on the safety group, said police have some concerns.

“If you have a certain amount of what you might consider legally parked vehicles overnight, you’re also going to have illegally parked ones. It’s not a one-to-one swap,” Marshall said.

“And now, you have the streets cluttered with extra vehicles at night, which makes it very difficult for us to monitor activities on the streets.”

Marshall said typically, an officer on night patrol now has an opportunity to cruise through dense areas and easily look down the streets for any activity. He said adding a substantial number of vehicles into the area lends itself to more break-ins and thefts of those cars.

He also said there are illegal apartments – more units in a building being rented out than a building is zoned for – and that may lead to more people parking on the street.

Additionally, Marshall said enforcement of the permits, which has been proposed to be stickers placed inside residents’ vehicles, can be difficult to maintain.

“Every car needs to be brushed off (in the winter) to see if there’s a proper sticker,” he said.

Officials’ response

Ward 9 Alderman Dan Moriarty says he has lived in different places all over the country that allowed overnight parking, so he’s “naturally inclined” to lean that way. But he’s hesitant to see a wide portion of the city allowed to participate in the pilot program, which is intended to be a study on the change.

“It makes sense to try something new in a limited fashion, in the Tree Streets, and then expand from there,” he said

Alderman-at-Large David Deane said he doesn’t like the idea of charging residents for stickers, and he would be hesitant to hire someone to go around inspecting cars.

Marshall pointed out the city just gave the Police Department approval for a third-shift parking enforcement officer. But he said there are also logistics that need to be worked out, such as whether to ticket or tow cars if they’re parked illegally.

Deane said the aldermen may have to do some “soul searching” to make their determination on how to handle this sensitive topic.

“If they don’t pay their fee, how do you collect it from them?” he asked. “It just seems like we’re creating a fiasco. … The last thing I want to do is hire people to enforce parking on the streets that the citizens paid for to begin with.”

Density concerns

Aldermen also touched on the issue of illegal units, and asked if on-street parking would encourage more residents to move in where they aren’t supposed to.

Ward 3 Alderman Diane Sheehan said there’s a chance this measure could exacerbate that problem.

“Other cities … they’re doing it great because they have done it with a sticker system that verifies whether a person lives in a unit,” she said. “And I don’t think it punishes the resident. I think it ensures a resident or a renter that they have an apartment with a legal egress, with other codes and enforcement measures.”

Donchess doesn’t agree.

“You’ve heard the concern that increasing the parking will increase density,” he said. “It will encourage the creation of illegal units. I think we certainly don’t want more illegal units, there’s not question about that. But I think with the proper enforcement, we can keep that (at bay). … We have enough people to enforce the building and zoning laws.”

Marshall said this would be a change of life, as well as character, in Nashua.

“You’ve driven down any of the streets in Somerville and Lowell,” he said of two Massachusetts cities. “Do we want a community that’s littered with cars up and down? It just adds to the congestion.”

Changing history

Moriarty said he knows the proposal touched on a long-standing city ordinance, and he hopes to understand why the laws were put into place years ago.

But Donchess said he doesn’t believe Nashua is so different from other cities around the state that have overnight parking in place –
without issue, according to city staff there, including Manchester, Concord and Portsmouth.

“I think that Nashua isn’t so unique that if we tailor an overnight parking ordinance to our local needs that we can’t make it a success here, as well,” he said.

“And remember, this is pilot. If there were terrible things that happened, which I don’t think will be the case, then I assume it probably wouldn’t be re-enacted.”

If the traffic safety group offers a favorable recommendation at the Infrastructure Committee meeting on July 24, officials say they’ll start putting plans in place to possibly launch the program this year.

Fauteux said her Public Works staff would have to be included in the process, such as painting the lines for fresh, new spaces.